VP Wallace on fascism (1944)

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May 14, 2017 by AK

Henry Scott Wallace writes in The New York Times:

Seventy-three years ago, The New York Times asked the sitting vice president to write an article about whether there are fascists in America, and what they’re up to.

…His article, “The Danger of American Fascism,” described a breed of super-nationalist who pursues political power by deceiving Americans and playing to their fears, but is really interested only in protecting his own wealth and privilege.

That vice president was my grandfather, Henry A. Wallace. And in my view, he predicted President Trump.

Henry A. Wallace was VP in 1941-45 and served as Secretary of Agriculture (under FDR) in 1933-40 and as Secretary of Commerce in 1945-6 (under Harry Truman). His article on fascism was published in the NYT on April 9, 1944. Here’s how Vice President Wallace explained his understanding of “fascist”:

A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.

Note that the deceit would do alone, without violence, which makes this definition of fascism rather broader than today’s mainstream view. Michael Mann looks at various approaches to describing fascism in the introductory chapter of his 2004 book Fascists, and provides his own. All these make a reference to “popular,” paramilitary violence as a means of attaining power, and of glorification of violence as a cornerstone of fascist ideology. Once you’ve relaxed this requirement and allowed “deceit” to replace “violence,” almost any politician can fit your mold of a fascist. In addition, the combination of class enmity and preference for violence is typical of Communism, which makes it a variety of fascism under Wallace’s rubric: an unintended side effect.

Later on, Wallace also claims:

The perfect type of fascist throughout recent centuries has been the Prussian Junker…

An ahistorical claim, but interesting in its own right because some Soviet historians also traced Hitler’s genealogy back to the Prussian monarchy, a proto-fascist regime by implication. The official Soviet view, as outlined in history books and encyclopedias up to the Perestroika, was that the the “German feudal lords'” eastward and northeastward expansion in the middle ages, to the detriment of the Slavs and the Balts, was an early form of colonialism. The Prussian state was, therefore, born from the original sin of anti-Slavic and anti-Baltic colonialism. Later on, the “Prussian model of capitalism” kept up the influence of the Junker class over government – a “fusion” of the bourgeoisie and the old landlords. All of which led straight to Hitler, according to the Soviet school.

Much of that logic probably went back to WWI Entente propaganda, to Lenin and even to Marx, but the Soviets (and, I imagine, their Polish colleagues) had a new reason to endorse this narrative starting from the 1940s. It justified the dismantling and dismembering of Prussia after WWII, with Poland and the USSR as the immediate beneficiaries. One might want to check out György Lukács’ 1943 article (in Russian), Prussianism and Fascism. Lukács claimed that the Prussian state had always been hostile to Germany’s national interest, an impediment to Germany’s development and a bridle on its culture.

More interesting, at least to me, is the timing of the article. Two months after his article on fascism ran in the NYT, Wallace set out to visit the harshest, deadliest camps of the Gulag archipelago. The conclusions he drew from that visit are, perhaps, the best indicator of his political judgment in that period. More about it in Part 2.


1 comment »

  1. […] Henry Wallace was a man of great talent and achievement. As a politician, however, was susceptible to selective blindness or conscience-soothing self-delusion. In May 1944, he visited the camps of the Kolyma basin – the vast, permafrost-covered northeasternmost island of the Gulag Arkhipelago. The title of Robert Conquest’s 1978 book, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, is not a rhetorical exaggeration. However, Wallace failed to detect anything amiss at the time of his journey. […]

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